When you’re experiencing anxiety, it’s easy to feel untethered. The racing thoughts, restlessness, irritability, and can’t-stop-won’t-stop heart pounding in your chest can make it hard to get things done or drift off come bedtime—even when you’re straight-up exhausted from the incessant buzz of the day’s inner dialogue.
In moments when your anxiety is cranked into overdrive, you might as well be time traveling. “You’re so much in your head, thinking about all of the ‘what ifs’ and the future, that you’re not actually tuning into what's happening right in front of you,” explains therapist Aisha R. Shabazz, LCSW, owner of In Real Time Wellness. So whenever you catch your mind flying around, take the keys out of the ignition and come back to the now.
OK, no, it’s not that simple, but having the right tools ready to go the next time you catch anxiety pulling you out of the present moment goes a long way. Before we get into those sweet, sweet hacks, let’s keep in mind that anxiety isn’t inherently bad. “If we didn't have anxiety, we wouldn't be able to be alive,” says Shabazz. “Anxiety is the thing that prevents us from stepping off of the curb before we get the crosswalk sign; it's always trying to keep us safe.”
So eliminating anxiety completely isn’t the goal here. Instead, we want to take it down a notch so that it isn’t popping up all the damn time and in a whole range of unnecessary situations (pretty sure we don’t need that fight-or-flight reaction while just laying in bed trying to sleep, k, thanks!) “We just need to fine-tune the signal so that we can recognize when it is actually keeping us safe versus when it is cranked up to an 11.”
So, how do we…do that? Here are a few expert-backed practices that may help bring your anxiety levels down a peg.
1. Ask your inner critic for receipts.
Let’s say your anxiety is spiraling because of some inner dialogue that’s rattling off all the worst-case scenarios that could totally happen (rude). Shabazz recommends getting skeptical about these assumptions going through your head. “Ask yourself, ‘What evidence do I have that what my inner critic is saying is true?’’’ she suggests. Just questioning those thoughts might help you feel more settled.
So, the next time your inner critic starts talking shit about you before a work presentation, ask for proof that what they’re saying is legit. Honestly, there’s probably nothing to back them up.
2. Write out all the things.
When your thoughts are flying by at a mile-a-minute pace (which always seems to happen the second your head hits the pillow, doesn’t it?), do a quick brain dump to empty out as much of that chatter as possible.
Grab a pen and your journal (check out these genius journal prompts for anxiety), planner, or a sheet of paper, or whip out your Notes app to jot down all of the thoughts cycling through your mind, suggests Shabazz. This practice is especially helpful for to-do list items.
“By getting the thoughts out and writing them down or saying them out loud, you're saying to anxiety, ‘I am doing something about this, and we're going to focus on it later,’” she explains. With that out of the way, you can do whatever you need to do right now. Like, you know, sleep.
3. Use your senses, all of ‘em.
Anxiety can make everything feel urgent, so slowing down is the obvious move here. But chances are your body and mind might both need some help doing less. Shabazz recommends using all five of your senses to feel more aware and present in the now.
Here’s how to do it: Say you just ordered (or brewed) a cup of coffee. Instead of mindlessly knocking it back, use this as an excuse to be more ~mindful~. First, look at it (if you’ve got foam art that decorates the top, yay for you!). Then, take a big inhale and notice the smell of the coffee, she suggests. Next, notice all of the sounds around you, whether it’s people buzzing around the coffee shop or your cat snoring in the window. Then, tap into the warmth of your mug using your sense of touch. And, finally, bring taste into the mix by taking a sip.
“When you experience anxiety in an intense way, aspects of your senses are either dialed down or ramped up depending on how [your brain] is trying to keep you safe,” Shabazz explains. “When you slow down and tap into your five senses, you allow yourself to come out of that anxious state and into an awareness state.”
4. Find some movement.
The more you try to constrict or try to stay still, the more intense the anxiety buildup, Shabazz explains. “Spontaneous, unguided movement helps you embrace more of what you need as opposed to feeling more confined.” Plus, research suggests that physical activity might actually protect against anxiety symptoms and disorders. (Minus that timed mile run you did in 6th-grade gym class, obvi).
When you’re struggling to sit still (think: when you’re at your desk trying to work), put on some music and take a minute or two to head bob. You could also go for a little walk around the block or jump in place, or whatever movement feels good.
5. Connect with the natural world.
Nature has a seriously profound effect on your mental wellbeing—and there’s some mental health research indicating that 10 to 20 minutes in a natural setting decreases blood pressure, stress hormone levels, and feelings of tension and anxiety, while boosting a sense of calm and comfort in college kids.
But even if you’re not in school, “embracing nature in whatever form you have access to could have a positive impact on your mental health,” Shabazz says. Whether you walk a local trail or sit under a tree in your backyard, surrounding yourself with green things is a good move when anxiety has you feeling stressy.
Pro tip: You can also try bringing nature in. Set a bouquet of flowers (how do you do, fancy friends) on your desk or kitchen table, or fill your workplace with all the plant babies you can remember to water. When anxiety feels intense, checking out or touching the petals and leaves can root you (heh, get it?) back into the present.
6. Touch things.
Sounds weird, but your sense of touch can be particularly powerful in grounding you— especially if you’re feeling panicked, says Shabazz.
Grab something really solid, like your favorite ceramic coffee mug, and zero in on the feeling of it between your hands. “There’s no denying that the physical coffee mug is here, which means you are here, too,” Shabazz explains. “Focusing on that can bring you back to the present, slow racing thoughts down, and decrease irritability.”
Another option: Place your feet on the floor and notice the sensation of the ground beneath them. “This reminds you that you’re here and you’re safe,” says Shabazz. “You might not remember the breathing exercises that we went over in session, but you know that your two feet are on the ground.”
7. Something obvious: Take a tech break.
There’s no denying that technology—especially social media—is a mixed bag when it comes to mental health. But when your mind starts racing, taking a break is definitely a good idea, as Shabazz suggests in this very helpful Instagram post we should all screenshot (yes, I hear the irony of this).
Also, one study from 2016 suggests that a one-week vacation from Facebook can improve how satisfied you are with your life and shift your emotions in a more positive direction. You don’t have to commit to a whole week here though. Just consider hiding your phone for a bit if you’re in the thick of tornado brain.
8. Fight the urge to grab a second cold brew.
Caffeine can exacerbate anxiety symptoms in many people—especially in high doses. Actually, research on anxiety and panic attacks suggests that five cups of coffee (which, yeah, is A LOT of coffee) increased anxiety in people with panic disorder AND people without it. So, turns out that more caffeine probably will not be the answer to your work/productivity stress. It might just make it worse.
9. Try some deep breaths.
It sounds basic, but diaphragmatic breathing, or breathing into your belly so that it fills up like a balloon on your inhale and deflates as you exhale, might reduce your anxious feels. Plus, some research on stress suggests this type of deep breathing can help reduce physical and psychological stress. Hey, it’s worth a shot.
10. Release your shoulders with this trick.
Feeling extra anxious can also make you tense AF. Try gently pressing your tongue against the roof of your mouth, which might help release tension in your face, jaw, neck, and shoulders, Shabazz explains. This tiny movement is clutch when you’re struggling to relax, whether you’re working, running errands, or trying to unwind (your mind and your clenched jaw) at the end of the day.
11. Let your muscles goooo.
Progressive muscle relaxation (aka PMR) is a technique in which you tense up and relax all of the different muscle groups throughout your body bit by bit. By highlighting the contrast between what it feels like to be stiff-as-a-board and a floppy mush, this exercise could help you release tension and basically melt your body and mind into a puddle of calm. One small study found that hospitalized cancer patients who used progressive muscle relaxation for 20 minutes a day for 15 days were less anxious than the patients who didn’t. You can try this guided recording or hit up YouTube to give it a shot.
Need more help?
Sure, all of these little tips can make a difference, but sometimes you might find that they just aren’t working for you. It’s also possible that your anxiety is so intense that you’re struggling to function, let alone go walk around the block. If that’s the case for you, remember that no hack is a replacement for the internal work required to feel more balanced when it’s not convenient, like when your passive-aggressive boss comes for you or you’re late for a thing that feels very, very important, Shabazz explains. Finding a licensed mental health pro who can help you create a personalized strategy might be really helpful.
Wondermind does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Any information published on this website or by this brand is not intended as a replacement for medical advice. Always consult a qualified health or mental health professional with any questions or concerns about your mental health.